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Anversa degli Abruzzi: the village and what to visit



An old traveler, in 1912, described Anversa degli Abruzzi
"The mountains drop straight down, chipped, burned, scary, the river gurgling among the rocks, falls in cascades, runs away in streams, it is collected in ponds."
It is this description that still suits this village that is clinging to a rocky cliff, under which open the prodigious Gorges of the Sagittario, which seem to look at the work of some majestic Titan, asleep there, in the vast rocky chasm.

For the traveler who comes from Cocullo, the village of Anversa degli Abruzzi greets him with a show that can only be enjoyed in a few other parts of Abruzzo. The first houses of the village seem to form a protective wall; it opens only at one point in a path large enough to allow access to the historic center, Piazza Roma, where the daily life of the entire village takes place. In the background, dominated by rocky peaks, on which lies balancing the small village of Castrovalva, under which plunges the majestic Gorges of the Sagittario.

The entrance to Anversa degli Abruzzi for those traveling from Cocullo (Photo: Toni Pulsoni)

It is from Piazza Roma we begin our tour through the ancient village of Anversa degli Abruzzi, to discover its treasures.

Right here, in the main square, stands the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie , the most important of the village. Built in the sixteenth century, the church is famous for its beautiful Renaissance portal, the only one of its kind in Abruzzo, made in 1540, the year the façade was built as well, as evidenced by a small plaque placed in a candle holder on the right pilaster. The portal has a rectangular shape and is richly decorated: above the trabeation marks a symbolic tomb from which comes the Redeemer held up by two Marys (identified respectively as Mary, the mother of Jesus and Mary Magdalene), on the right is Saint Jerome, translator of the Bible; on the left is St. Onofrio, a hermit of the Thebaid of Egypt.
The portal is surmounted by a large rose window and arcate tribolate, whose radiant columns are missing, probably due to the earthquake that struck the village in 1706. The rose window was built in 1585 and has, at the top, the coat of arms of the counts Belprato-Orsini and the bottom, the emblem of Anversa degli Abruzzi, represented by a compass with two entwined serpents around the two diverging parts of a compass, that many have wanted link to a Masonic context. The bell tower is also part of the facade, which stands on the right side of the church. On it, a relief represents the Eternal Father within a foliage plaque. 

The Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Piazza Roma (photo by Toni)

The interior of the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie is structured around a plan with three naves, with a rectangular apse, and retains some of the treasures of this small village. In the apse you can admire the valuable statue of San Rocco, made of polychrome terracotta in 1530; it is the work of Anversani potters. The apse also houses a tabernacle of carved and gilded wood, shaped like a temple of classical architecture, which dates back to the late sixteenth century and painted with gold by Maestro De Picchi di Pescasseroli in 1664.
On the high altar finally, is shown a copy of the beautiful Triptych of Anversa, which was built in the sixteenth century by an anonymous artist, and has been linked to the Florentine school or more likely that of Marche, and was stolen in 1981. The Triptych was tempera on wood and depicting the Coronation of the Virgin with St. Thomas, St. Michael the Archangel and St. Francis of Assisi.

The coat of arms of Anversa degli Abruzzi with the snakes twisted around a compass

We leave Piazza Roma and we descend into the alley Via Cords, which will take us to the lower part of the village. This is the oldest part of Anversa degli Abruzzi; here among the cobbled alleys that become entangled in what seems like hundreds of narrow and closed turns that sometimes opens to breathtaking views, you can still breathe a medieval atmosphere.

Continuing along Via La Grotta, you will come across the Center for Archaeological Documentation , where you can find many items which help you to understand the history of Anversa degli Abruzzi, which starts with the settlements in the Italic period.

Not far from the town, in fact, in the area called "Cava della Rena" (Quarry of Sand), is the Cemetery of the Pagans, dating from the third - the first century BC. This is an Italic necropolis, whose name dates back certainly to a Christian era. There are only a few graves the chamber type and there were opened and the funerary objects were found there are stored right in the center of the archaeological record of Anversa.

Arch of Porta Maggiore (Photo: Toni Pulsoni)

Continuing our drive along Via La Grotta, we arrive at Port Pazziana . This is one of the two ports (the other is that of St. Nicholas is located near the Via of the same name) that remained of the ancient town walls.

These small streets intersect and developed like in a maze, which confuses and fascinates those travel them. In a game of lines, of empty and full, of intersections and stairs, of up and down, the walls and dark stone arches mixed with fragments of sky, one cannot help but feel dazed and lost in a claustrophobic maze, and then almost magically, it suddenly opens up, a just few steps from a panoramic outlook point of the Gorges of the Sagittario . The traveler finally opens a window to a breathtaking view, dominated by the small village of Castrovalva, clinging to the rocks. Yet you still cannot see the whole landscape in its full extent: the walls of the houses that surround the terrace of the lookout point remind us that we are still in the maze of Anversa.

The perched village of Castrovalva on the terrace of the viewpoint of Anversa

Continuing along the narrow Via La Foce, we reach the Houses of "Lombardi" , which were built between 1480 and 1520 by master Comacini, who was part of the northern mastery.

Near these buildings, you can see one of the portals of a private residence, which still preserves some of the ornamental and talismanic elements, made by skilled craftsmen. Going along Vico Medio, on Via Porta Maggiore n.30 in fact you can see the portal made in 1666 , on which symbolic figures related to the cult of St. Dominic (worshiped in the nearby village of Cocullo) are carved: the snake, fish, sword and the tools of the mule.

A private portal in Via Porta Maggiore n.30 with  details related to Sant'Antonio

We go back through Via Porta Maggiore to the main road Via Duca degli Abruzzi, which runs through the village of Anversa and we stop in Largo Piazzetta. Here is the Church of San Marcello , Pope and Martyr, and patron saint of the town. The church was already built by the eleventh century and was later enlarged and embellished under the lordship of Niccolò da Procida, whose coat of arms is carved on the top of the portal.

The late-Gothic portal is from the second half of the fifteenth century and in the lunette there is a tribulation fresco by an unknown author, that shows the Madonna and Child between St. Marcellus and St. Vincent Martyr, whose execution date is affixed to the upper edge of the lintel: 1472. Ornamental motif carvings (vegetable, anthropomorphic beings, animals) adorn the portal, which maintains a relative rarity in trefoil placed in Lancet arch lunette, which reveals Burgundian influence. The leaves of chestnut wood, however, were made in 1468 by the master Nicola of Sulmona.

The interior walls of the church must have been covered with frescoes once, as evidenced by the extensive traces recently discovered in the upper part of the back wall. Of these ancient frescoes, only those on the right side after the entrance have been preserved, representing Saint Catherine of Alexandria and St. Anthony, and those in poor condition, located on a wall of the staircase of the tower. 

Church of San Marcello (Photo: Toni Pulsoni)

We continue our tour of Anversa degli Abruzzi, walking along Via Duca degli Abruzzi, in the direction of Scanno. Going past the last houses, on the left it finally opens up to the beautiful view of the Sagittario's Gorges, this time in its entirety and majesty, a landscape, that many writers have called "nightmarish and beautiful." 

Panorama of the Sagittario's Gorges (photo by Domenico Aliperto)

One is easily satisfied by the awesome beauty that these views give rise to, we walk towards the top of the village. After climbing Via Castello, we come to one of the symbols of Anversa degli Abruzzi: the Norman Castle  or the Castle of the Counts of Sangro.

The castle was built by the Normans in the twelfth century, with the aim of controlling one of the southern approaches to the Valley Peligna. Later, it was enlarged and strengthened by Antonio di Sangro and his family during the fifteenth century. After the Counts of Sangro, the castle was inhabited by the Belprato family, and it was here that they made their home. Under the Belprato, the castle was embellished and became a center of attraction for intellectuals and artists.

Between 1585 and 1588, in the large committal Chapel of St. Michael the Archangel attached to the palace, took place the marriage between D.Costanza, daughter of Gio Berardino II and Virginia Orsini, with the scholar Neapolitan Giambattista Manso, Marquis of Villa Irpina and lord of Bisaccia, friend and patron of scholars, such as Torquato Tasso, who composed the sonnet for this wedding: In a beautiful meadow, and among the beautiful flowers and herbs.

The Castle of the Normans or the Di Sangro (Photo: Toni Pulsoni)

But even in more recent times, the Norman castle of Anversa was the center of events related to the world of literature. It was here that Gabriele D'Annunzio set his tragedy La fiaccola sotto il moggio, after visiting the castle, along with Antonio De Nino.

The ancient castle that remains today is only a ruin and a fourteenth-century pentagonal tower "strut" over the previous Norman square plan. Today, the tower continues to soar among ancient boulders, fallen after the violent earthquake in 1706, a symbol of the ancient grandeur of Anversa.

What is still intact, however, is the residential building and the Chapel of counts attached to the castle, and the low arch at the entrance of the building, which is dated to the early sixteenth century and features the coat of arms of the same century the Belprato of-the-Tolfa-Orsini.
Inside, one can admire the post-Renaissance garden on two levels, with a small tower equipped with circular staircase, consisting of modules of limestone slabs.

The entrance to the Castle of the Normans (Photo: Toni Pulsoni)

The presence of the Norman castle and churches such as San Marcello document a very ancient origin of Anversa degli Abruzzi. The ancient origins of this village and Anversana community is further evidenced by two other buildings: the ruins of the churches of Santa Maria ad Nives and St. Vincenzo which are located outside of the town.
The Church of St. Vincent is located outside the village of Anversa and is reached following the Via Vittorio Emanuele II or Strada Statale 479 and taking the first street on the left (a narrow uphill road) outside the town.
The church was built in the Early Middle Ages by Volturnensi monks in the village Passano under the name of St. Vincent de Flaturno. The church once had an adjoining cemetery. It was in this church that Pietro d'Anversa was buried in 1333, bishop of Carinola and then Sulmona.
Unfortunately today the only things that remains of the church are parts of the walls, coupled with the Parish House. Yet, the visitor who went there must once have found it valuable, if, as is attested, the church was full of ornaments from the Renaissance period, as the bas-relief depicting the Agnus Dei, which adorned the entrance.

A little further away, returning along Via Vittorio Emanuele II or Strada Statale II and turning onto the second street on the right, which leads down to the river Sagittarius, we find the Church and the Monastery of Santa Maria ad Nives
The church, with the adjoining monastery, was already built in the ninth century by Benedictine monks, who dedicated it to the Santa Maria de Flaturno. As a "cell", it was dependent on the Volturnense monastery of Santa Maria in Appinianico of Pescina and was in control, in the valley of Flaturno, of the nearby villas Saletta, Miscella, Macrano, Cennei, Fofile, Campulo, Cesa, Bussi and Mebio. In the sixteenth century, the Belprato donated it to the Dominican Fathers, who held the property until 1652, when the monastery was suppressed by Pope Innocent X, while its vast wealth came under the patronage of the City of Anversa. 
The church and the monastery lost more importance until it became first a barn and then, during the plague, like that of 1656, a hospital, where the infected people were admitted.
Today, all that remains of the ancient splendor of these buildings are only ruins, immersed in the heart of unspoiled nature, where plant life is marked by the constant lapping of the Sagittario River, which flows a few feet away.

To conclude the tour through the historic center of Anversa, we suggest a visit to the old workshop of clay processing , which is located in the lower part of town, Via S.M. delle Fornaci. Anversa, in fact, has always been famous for its ceramics since the fifteenth century. During the Renaissance, the village had to be particularly well known for its shops and its master potters, though some Renaissance majolica of Villa d'Este in Tivoli were made by a master potter of Anversa degli Abruzzi, Bernardino de' Gentili.
The Anversane shops had to be near the headwaters of the Cavuto River and along Via delle Fornaci, where one of these old shops is still exactly preserved.

The workshop of one of the potters from Anversa

For nature lovers, finally, is worth visiting the Visitor Center, located downstream of the village, right next to the source of Cavuto, where you can get information about the nature that surrounds this beautiful village and from which you can begin a beautiful hike in the Reserve of the Sagittario's Gorges, a WWF oasis today.

The Sagittario's Gorges and the nearby Villalago's Lake (photo by Tony)

The Tour Map of Anversa degli Abruzzi 

Visualizza Tour Map of Anversa degli Abruzzi in una mappa di dimensioni maggiori

This article has been translated from Italian Language by Ashton Walters and A&M Translation and Writing.